This morning’s paper tells me the Dublin-born writer Emma Donoghue is favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, with her novel called Room, about an 11-year-old who’s incarcerated for years in this tiny room. Sounds like a laugh a minute. I’ve never met Emma Donoghue but I knew her father, Denis. He was a young lecturer in UCD during my time there in the 1960s and we saw him as the epitome of cool. He was tall and young, he wore a black shirt (BLACK!) and he delivered his English Literature lectures with a slight American accent (he’d done his doctorate in the States). Everybody agreed that he was marvellously brainy and that his lectures were profound but I never met anyone who, when pressed, could tell you what they were about. He had a way of delivering resounding statements that left us slack-jawed with wonder. I remember a lecture on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida which he ended with the declaration “...And the sound we hear (pause for effect) is the clanging of the gates”. Eh? What gates? What clanging? What’s he talking about? Our minds buzzed with such thoughts but none of us dared speak them out loud. “Bloody brilliant!” we told each other, nodding wisely as we left the lecture hall.
He was also arrogant in a witty way. When I was doing my Master’s, along with two or three others I got some group tutorial work with First Year English students. Denis Donoghue used to meet with us every so often to see how our teaching was going. We used to tell him of our occasional triumph, when we’d managed to get the fairly stodgy class to become involved in discussion. I remember Donoghue’s reaction: ‘Yes, well that’s fine, but don’t forget: just because little Johnny at the back who hasn’t opened his mouth all term eventually says something, it’s not necessarily a success. Little Johnny may be a stupid bastard who’d have been better keeping his mouth shut in the first place”.
And when I was doing my Master’s thesis, he was my supervisor. Initially he was encouraging – “That’s good, that’s an interesting subject you’ve chosen” – but as time went on he seemed to lose interest and was less and less available for help. As a result my dissertation ended up being an appallingly limp creation.
His daughter looks just like him (and, I believe, is nearly as tall) and she strikes me as an accomplished writer. But I’ll still be rooting for Andrea Levy or Peter Carey. Experience of their earlier work tells me they write with energy and insight and humour about topics that don’t make me want to go and slash my wrists in the bath.